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‘It was the damndest-looking house I ever saw.’

Architecture: More than geography, buildings give us a sense of place. The Arc de Triomphe is a signpost for Paris, the Taj Mahal for Agra, and the Great Wall of China for Peking.

Sochi State Art Museum is vintage Italian Renaissance in style.
Sochi State Art Museum is vintage Italian Renaissance in style.
Sochi State Art Museum
Sochi State Art Museum
Sochi State Art Museum

Signposts are also familiar territory in fiction. Daphne De Maurier set the scene in Rebecca with, “There it was, the Manderley I had expected, the Manderley of my picture post-card long ago.” Raymond Chandler did it in The Long Goodbye like this: “It was the damndest-looking house I ever saw.”

Even in private life, novelist Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky paid attention to building styles. A devout Slavophil, he couldn’t stand the classical architecture in the Renaissance city of Florence and slammed the place while living there for nearly a year. He wrote letters to family and friends, calling it a “hell” worse than the eight years he spent in prison and exile: “worse than deportation to Siberia.”

No doubt, Dostoyevsky would have hated the Sochi State Art Museum - in the news last week because attendance there tripled during the Olympic Games. This museum’s architecture is vintage Neo-Classical straight out of the Renaissance city of Florence.

When you think of Russian buildings, you may think of onion-shaped domes, but think again. A lot of neoclassical architecture came to that land in the Stalin era for the same reason it came to Nazi Germany: it sent a message of state power. Onion-shaped domes have only the power to slough off snow build-up.

Comparing the city where Michelangelo and Da Vinci honed their skills to a prison would have you think that Dostoyevsky lived in a barrack. But he had one of the most desirable addresses in Florence: Piazzi Pitti 21. As the street name suggests, a neighboring building was the Pitti Palace, the palatial residence of the grand dukes of the Medici family, complete with gardens of fountains, columns, and statuary. Imagine likening a place that boasts such a palace to a dump. His fancy address was also the place where he wrote the first draft of his famous novel “The Idiot.”

It’s notable that the protagonist in The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, returned to Russia after a long absence – clearly a projection of Dostoyevsky’s own desires. Moscow-born Dostoyevsky stayed in his rooms during his stay in Florence, all the while blaming the city for “lacking fresh Russian impressions.”

But here’s the thing. Many of the palaces and churches of Mother Russia were designed by Italian architects or influenced by them. The Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, the best-known structure in a town where Dostoyevsky lived most of his life, bears all the arches, pediments and pilasters of a High-Renaissance building. The Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli designed it without a single one of those onion-shaped cupolas that one associates with Russian architecture.

Dostoyevsky knew his country’s politics, but he didn’t know his onions about its architecture.